Sometime in 1996 or 1997, an envelope full of little marvels arrived in the mail at my basement apartment in Washington, DC.
Pete McCommons, the publisher of Flagpole magazine, had just asked me to be his editor down in Athens, and he had sent along some drawings that an ambitious and then-unknown art student, Patrick Lee Dean, had sent along to him. Maybe this guy can help us, Pete said in a note.
The sketches inside were just that—sketches—but they were also fully formed and delicious visions from the artist Athens would soon come to know so well, full of warbly normcore shmoes and shmoe-ettes moving shoulder to shoulder through the world alongside fantastical google-eyed B-movie monsters who strutted and preened and basked in their airs of silliness, danger, absurdity and promise of certain death.
I called Patrick immediately and offered him a prime weekly spot on the opening page of the tabloid I was about to run. He accepted, and here we are: Few other visual artists would become as bound up in Athens’ myth and reality and conception of itself. Patrick Dean’s scary monsters are with us everywhere in Athens.
Finding a great cartoonist had been a top concern of mine as I imagined re-tooling Flagpole in the late 1990s. I knew the city was full of great illustrators, and in my head I had imagined recruiting an underground comic in the style of a Gary Panter or Charles Burns, part of the punk-era coterie championed (and published) by Françoise Mouly and Art Spiegelman in their daring New York comix magazine Raw.
But as Patrick was given free rein to set the weekly tone for our little alternative weekly, I realized he was coming from another place entirely. Panter and Burns, like the punk and post-punk music of their time, seemed to be reacting to the curdled free-to-be-you-and-me bromides of the ’60s. But by the late 1990s there was evidence that this reaction was itself curdling, or at least hitting some artistic dead-ends. You could feel it in Athens by the time I got there in 1997: The post-punk ironic stance—the flirtation with nihilism, the dark humor—was going out with the commodification of grunge. Something new, something more earnest, something unafraid to expand and limn the psychic palette with colors other than blacks and grays, was coming in.
This shift sparked fiery debates in the tiny confines of Athens’ alternative music world at the time, and, interestingly, it has more recently come to be recognized as an important breach that defines the pre- and post-Generation X worldviews. It was by no means a perfect break. In music, the seeds of the new earnestness were in the alternative-era work of Jonathan Richman and Daniel Johnston (and, of course, the idiosyncratic visions of greats like Panter and Burns would never curdle).
Patrick’s world was some other thing. As he spun his sweetly surrealist stories—sometimes in a single comic, sometimes stretched out over months in fever-dream soap operas with curlicued plot twists and recurring and disappearing characters—the operative stance toward the world was not fatigue or cynicism, but curiosity and wonder. Consciously or not, it was not dissimilar to the Elephant 6 and Kindercore musical movements that were blossoming in Athens at the time. Illustration-wise, there is some Maurice Sendak in Patrick’s work, and some Jack Davis, and, yes, Daniel Johnston. The easygoing magic realism, with its monsters lurking in quotidian corners, finds a spiritual cousin in the anime masterpieces of Japan’s Studio Ghibli. But Patrick is also a master of observation, and the everyday world he draws is often a recognizable Athens, or something very close to it.
In recent months, we have learned that this unique and visionary artist, so generous of soul and keen of eye and sure of hand, has been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. To no one’s surprise, Patrick has been busy confronting this very real monster with his familiar and measured mix of terror and humor and wonder.
These days, it’s the kind of wisdom about the end of things that people seek out with the aid of ayahuasca and rented shamans.
In Patrick, the wisdom was always there.
Richard Fausset is a New York Times correspondent based in Atlanta. His remarks are reprinted courtesy of The Georgia Museum of Art and appear in the brochure accompanying the exhibition of Patrick Dean’s work. The show will be up through Mar. 29.
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